Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Canada’s Temporary Commons

Canada boasts one of the most imposing parliamentary complexes in the world, presiding from a lordly bluff in the federal capital of Ottawa. While I think the city could do with an overall Hausmannisation, the government of the Confederation is undertaking significant efforts to renovate the buildings on Parliament Hill.

While the House of Commons chamber is renovated, the dominion’s lower house will meet in a new temporary chamber (above) constructed in the inner court of the West Block, one of a pair of high Victorian Gothic structures that flank the main parliament building. The restoration will take five to seven years, after which the temporary chamber will be converted into parliamentary committee rooms.

This post was published on Sunday, March 6th, 2011 9:09 pm. It has been categorised under Architecture Canada and been tagged under , , .
7 Mar 2011 4:51 pm

As a proud Canadian, and resident of Ottawa, I have to agree with two points you made here. The first being that Parliament Hill is indeed an imposing complex; and, in my humble opinion, one of the most impressive in the world. The second being that Ottawa could definitely do with an overall “Hausmannisation” as you call it.

I have always found it somewhat perplexing that Ottawa was chosen and created as the capital of the Province of Canada at more or less the same time as Baron Haussmann was busy rebuilding Paris. Yet the planners of Ottawa at the time seem not to have learnt any lessons from their contemporary across the pond.

Unfortunately, we seem to still have leaders today, whether they be of the municipal or NCC variety, who lack any real vision for a great capital. The few exciting proposals the NCC has made over the years, for example creating a grand avenue leading to Parliament Hill, have unfortunately been met with derision from many locals.

K. Dontoh
11 Mar 2011 2:18 am

For a temporary chamber I think it is quite sufficient, to the point that I would not be too annoyed if I was told they were moving there permanently (although I would not want to hear why they had to do so).

I have never been to Ottawa, but I have been given the impression it is similar to your average North American city- gridiron with a downtown core and an abrupt switch to the suburbs. However, a ‘Hausmannisation’ is a virtual impossibility, as it would involve tearing down the entire city sans the government buildings and other older buildings, and trying to plan a new city around them. I do not think any country right now has the gumption and funds to undertake such a task, perhaps with the exception of the Chinese.

But had the Canadian government, when planning Ottawa, could have simply looked south to their neighbor’s capital; I think Washington is one of the most well-planned cities in the world. I’m also sure that Frederick Law Olmsted was most active during that time.

Chad, could you tell us more about this proposal for a “grand avenue”?

14 Mar 2011 5:47 pm

K. Dontoh,

Your description of Ottawa is more or less correct. For the most part it is a fairly standard North American city. It does have some very nice neighbourhoods, the Glebe for instance, which retain much of their 19th Century and early 20th Century character. There are also some other rather nice features, 1) Rockcliffe Park which is a neighbourhood filled with grand estates (including those of the US Ambassador and many others), 2) the vast amount of parkland and open spaces including the 361 sq km (140 sq mile) Gatineau Park, 3) the Byward Market, and, 4) the Rideau Canal.

Unfortunately, unlike Washington DC, Ottawa has never truly had an overall urban plan. The National Capital Commission (NCC) and its predecessors have been responsible since 1899 for ensuring that Ottawa, as the national capital, serves as an “expression of the Canadian identity”. However, the lack of a single grand plan and the constant bickering over jurisdiction (5 levels of government have a direct hand in planning, while all provincial and territorial governments also have to be consulted) has, in my opinion, led to a complete failure to develop a comprehensive vision for the capital.

The “grand avenue” I mentioned was a 1998 proposal from the NCC to widen Metcalfe Street from Parliament Hill all the way to the Museum of Nature, 17 blocks in total. Metcalfe is the main street leading towards Parliament and is off centre. The proposal would have required the expropriation and demolition of dozens of buildings in centretown (downtown) Ottawa. The intent was to create a grand avenue or boulevard somewhat akin to the Champs Élysées in Paris that would lead directly to Parliament Hill, and be centred on its façade.

Naturally this proposal met with a great deal of opposition, city council argued that it would significantly erode the tax base in centretown, preservationists warned that many historic buildings would have to be moved or demolished, average citizens complained that it would cause too much upheaval, and property owners in the area didn’t take kindly to the possibility of having their land expropriated. C’est la vie!

There have in fact been many reports, studies, commissions and plans over the years that have urged/proposed the development of a master plan for the national capital. Sadly none of these have been fully adopted and only random parts of the plans have actually been implemented. Many of these proposals have called for the creation of numerous avenues and boulevards, parkways and ring roads, new parkland and green spaces, and even national monuments and institutions, etc. Regardless, due to the lack of vision, Ottawa’s growth continues be rooted in the standard car dependent culture that pervades North American cities.

The National Capital Region (NCR) now has a population of nearly 1.5 million souls, but no commuter rail or subway system. Rather, commuters generally have to either use the single major highway that runs roughly east-west through the heart of the city and/or one of the few bridges that cross the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau.

As an architectural buff who appreciates the character and charm of older buildings I don’t like to advocate their demolition, in fact I believe that we don’t do nearly enough in this city to protect such buildings. However, I still believe that the NCR definitely needs an overall “Hausmannisation” and that this can be accomplished in a manner that serves to encourage a more pedestrian-friendly, public transit using, and less car dependent culture.

K. Dontoh
5 Apr 2011 4:50 am

Ahh, thank you Chad.

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